Nothing about divorce is easy, but perhaps the hardest part is communicating the life-changing event to your kids. Naturally, the break-up of parents has the potential to adversely affect a child at any age, however, if handled correctly, there is no reason for the child-parent relationship to suffer in the way the relationship between you and your former partner has.
We have prepared general guidance below for best practice steps to take when addressing the issue with your kids. Please note that these tips are general, and may not be applicable for all situations – if you have any uncertainties, it is best to obtain advice from a counsellor, psychologist or legal practitioner, depending on your circumstances.
What to do
1. Present a united front
Separating can be an acrimonious time and often this can result in parents disparaging the other parent in front of the children. This behaviour is particularly harmful and can be quite destructive for the children by placing pressure on your kids to take one parents side over the other.
For these reasons, amongst others, it is important that you make it easy for your children to love both of you because, regardless of your relationship breakdown, your children have the right to love both of their parents unconditionally. This is best done by presenting a united front for your kids, even if they end up being the only thing you can be united for.
This isn’t always an easy position to adopt, however there are a range of child-focussed post-separation parenting courses which offer support and assistance to parents, including:
- Parenting After Separation at Relationship Matters;
- Tuning in to Kids Parenting Program (or Tuning in to Teens, for parents with older children);
- Parent Education Program at Relationships Australia.
For more information about support and assistance for parents after separation, Relationships Australia provide a useful guide in their publication ‘Help for parents after separation’.
2. Offer love and reassurance
It is important that the conversation is founded in assurances that your kids are still loved by both of you, even if you have fallen out of love with each other. Children need to be assured that the separation has nothing to do with them and that the change is for the best. While it can often be inappropriate to divulge the reasons for separation and the details of the conflict, it is important to be upfront and truthful in answering any questions they may have.
When speaking with your children it is recommended to keep the communication simple and plan out your words beforehand to avoid confusion or hurting their perception of either parent. It is important that you allow the child to offer their opinion and express their emotions so all avenues can be dealt with, as a lack of answers can lead to further questions and uncertainty.
Both parents being present together is also helpful as it assists with sustaining the image of a united front. If you are concerned about your language being age-appropriate, or about how to approach difficult questions, it may be worthwhile seeking the assistance or advice of a psychologist/counsellor prior to initiating the conversation.
3. Stay future focussed
Perhaps the most important aspect of the conversation is providing your children with certainty as to the future. Undoubtedly, the revelation of their parents separating will effectively turn their lives upside down and throw significant doubt over the future. Your children need to know where they’re going to be living and when they’re going to be seeing each parent. Providing them with as much stability as possible is extremely important during a relatively unstable period of their life.
If you are having difficulties agreeing on these arrangements, it may be useful to attend Family Dispute Resolution and use this session to come up with a jointly agreed parenting plan. Alternatively, if agreement cannot be reached, it is advisable to speak with a Family Lawyer to obtain legal advice with respect to parenting arrangements.
What not to do
1. Manipulate your children against the other parent
Manipulation can take many forms, from blaming one parent for the separation, to putting children in situations where they have to choose between parents. Manipulation can even be in the form of using your time with the children to take them on “fun” outings and shower them with gifts, while leaving the “boring and serious” parenting to the other parent.
Children need to have the opportunity to feel they have the right to enjoy time with both of their parents, without having to choose between them. Organising competing activities when you know the other parent has something scheduled does more harm to the child than ultimately to the other parent as it puts pressure on the child to make the decision.
2. Use children as a messenger
Parents should at no point make their adult problems the problems of their children. Nevertheless, there are countless occasions where parents are seen using their children to pass messages to the other parent, to avoid speaking with them, or using their child to “spy” on the other parent.
If the separation is so acrimonious that you cannot communicate with each other, the appropriate action to take is engaging a lawyer to speak to the other parent on your behalf. This is not an appropriate role for your children and has the potential to be detrimental to their mental health.
We’ve had the conversation with our kids… what now?
If you have come to an agreement about parenting arrangements for your children, it is recommended that those arrangements be finalised either by way of a parenting plan or by way of Consent Orders.
A parenting plan is an informal written agreement which is not legally enforceable but has the flexibility of being changed by the agreement of either party at any time. Conversely, Consent Orders are approved by the Family Court and provide the parties with binding and enforceable Court Orders.
If you have been unable to reach an agreement, or would like assistance in finalising an agreement, you should contact a family lawyer to provide you with tailored, expert advice for your situation and to help you negotiate parenting arrangements that are in the best interests of your children.
How can Sharrock Pitman Legal help?
Our Family Law Team at Sharrock Pitman Legal are here to support you through this transition with the care you deserve, to help get you to a better and brighter future. To book a consultation with one of our family lawyers, please contact us on 1300 205 506 or via email at email@example.com.
The information contained in this article is intended to be of a general nature only and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Any legal matters should be discussed specifically with one of our lawyers.
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For further information contact
Katharine is a Senior Associate of Sharrock Pitman Legal.
She is an Accredited Specialist in Family Law (accredited by the Law Institute of Victoria). For further information, contact Katharine on (03) 8561 3319.